Packing Bags

I don’t remember how many times my mom packed her bags to leave my father, but it would definitely take more than one hand to count them. And I’d run out of all my body parts if I were to count how many times she said she wanted to leave him. Of course, those were just counts of what is in my memory. From what my maternal grandmother had told me, she’d packed her bags even before my older sister was born.

One might think this was like the boy who cried wolf. If she’d threatened so many times, but hadn’t left, she must not have really wanted to leave. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m quite certain she’d meant it every single time. Perhaps one day I’d have the courage to talk about why that was the case, but for now, I want to focus on the circumstances of women in Korea when I was young.

So what kept my mom from leaving? Primarily, her children. My mom earned a good salary as a private elementary school teacher with many years of experience, but my father, as a pharmacist, earned more. At the time, not only was divorce frowned upon in the highly patriarchal society where women’s place was by men, but the court system was also skewed toward men for the same reason. Just because my mom had means to support her children, didn’t mean she’d win a battle against the patriarch of the family, especially with less money. And of course, after she was made to quit her job, she really had no chance at winning her case in the court.

But my mom had tried. She always took her children with her when she tried to leave, but she’d realize the futility of her effort and come back. Running was impossible since she’d inevitably caught wherever she’d run to within Korea. And running to another country, of course, was impossible since the system in Korea made it impossible for her to take children anywhere without the permission of the father.

Fifty years later, my mom is still with my father. I think starting about five years ago, she finally stopped saying she’s going to leave him. Is that because she’s finally happy with her marriage? Perhaps. Or is it maybe she’s just tired of fighting?

Remembrance of Father

My maternal grandfather was taken by the North Koreans during the Korean War when my mother was only five. Having lost her father at an early age, I don’t think my mother remembers a lot about him. My grandfather worked as the first interpreter to General Hodge, a commander in the US Army Military Government in Korea after the Japanese occupation, probably the reason he was taken so swiftly by the North Koreans. 

My grandfather was a brilliant linguist, a second son of a prestigious family, and also a dreamer. If it hadn’t been for my grandmother, he would probably have been a failed lawyer who couldn’t support his family. Having grown up lacking nothing with a sharp mind, he was likely encouraged to pursue a scholarly path. He knew little of how to make money or support his family. He became a lawyer, but he didn’t know how to collect money. My grandmother still complains of him receiving a chicken or a bag of rice for his services.

Through my grandmother’s push, he passed the exam to be an interpreter. She thought he’d at least make money as that since interpreters to the government were usually salaried. My grandmother once told me how he’d looked at the dictionary so much that he could find any word using his big toe. I’m not sure if my mother knew any of these stories. She’d always had a rather rose-tinted memory of her father.

One memory she frequently mentions to me is the time he’d worked as the interpreter. Every morning before he went to work, he’d ask my mother to go get warm, plain white rice cakes from the nearby store for breakfast. Since he worked with the people from the US government, he had refrained from eating typical Korean meals which usually have Gimchi. 

This memory seems to be my mom’s best memory of her father since it is so frequently mentioned to me. She felt valued. With each retelling of the story, his voice becomes softer, his demeanor caring. I know from my grandmother’s story that her husband was not affectionate to his children. He was distant, at best. Even though he’d written many romantic letters to my grandmother, he’d not been a great father. But I think my mother wants to remember differently since he’d left so few memories. 

And I certainly say nothing to the contrary or pry further.

To be or not to be “borrowed barley sack”

꿔다 놓은 보릿자루 is a common expression in Korea, which literally means “borrowed barley sack” (Note that I deliberately didn’t use any article since we do not have articles in the Korean language, and yes, that would look strange to English speakers 😄). 

This phrase refers to a person who is taking up a space, but not saying a word, like a sack. The expression originated during the Joseon era (aka Yi dynasty, the latest dynasty in Korea prior to Japanese occupation and current day Korea). Some nobles gathered to overthrow an evil tyrant ruler. Of course, these people would be wary of being discovered and later tortured and killed for plotting against the absolute ruler. During one secret meeting, someone noticed there was another person in the room who he didn’t know. Everyone was scared only to discover it was just an outerwear lying on top of a barley sack someone had borrowed that day. So from then on, if there is a person in the room who’s sitting silently, taking up a spot, but not contributing, that person would be 꿔다 놓은 보릿자루.

It is a phrase often used for a non-contributing member, so can refer to someone who’s not doing their part. However, when I was young, it was often used to describe how children should behave. It would be akin to a phrase in English, “children should be seen and not heard.”

As a child, I had a difficult time with this edict, especially because I thought conflicting messages were coming from adults. I totally blame my confusion on me being perhaps too literal, too precocious and/or having opinions. My initial thought was, if I were supposed to behave like a borrowed barley sack, I should literally be a sack. No sound, no movement, nothing. But no, I was still required to be the first one to smile, bow, and clearly say hello to visiting adults before they did so. Not doing so would be a terribly rude thing and my parents would lose face. I was extremely uncomfortable with people, ‌thanks to being isolated and not allowed to go outside to play through most of my childhood (and yes, I once drew a picture of myself inside a jail as me being at home). For me, this supposedly well-mannered behavior I had to follow was one of the most awful things I could imagine as a child.

After the greeting, I was also required to be a non-sack whenever any adult felt like talking to me, but had to turn back into a sack after monosyllabic/short phrase responses to whatever they asked. I think I was a precocious child. I had opinions and things to say about whatever questions adults occasionally threw at me. But well, a sack that turns into a non-sack apparently was not allowed to have an opinion. So when I did talk a bit more than typical yes or no/short phrase answers, some adults found me amusing, but others would label me as ill-mannered. And my parents got upset about me for talking when asked to talk.

You see my confusion there?

I did once voice my opinion about my confusion, but I was shut down, well, more like scared into not speaking, and I became a true sack.

So here I am, an adult, in America, where a person is probably only valued for speaking out and advocating for themselves. Let’s say I spent many years of my life here trying to metamorphose myself out of being a sack. Was I successful? I’m not sure. I guess all I can say is I’m tired of being pushed in either direction. I just want to be, well, ME.

A great cook

People say I am a great cook, although I always question, “Really?” Okay, this is an honest curiosity on my part since I don’t believe I can’t be a good cook because I’ve been told many times I’m average in everything, and also, partly because of ingrained teaching coming from my Korean and family background to be modest. But inevitably, no matter what the answer to my question is, people assume my cooking skills must come from my mother. Well, there are a lot of things to admire about my mother, but cooking is not one of them. At least when I was young, she was a terrible cook, and she didn’t even like cooking.

Then how to explain that not all cooking skills come from mothers when people seem to picture this nice middle-aged 아줌마 whenever they think of moms? This assumption often grates at me, since I literally didn’t grow up with my mother since I was twelve. And even when I was in Korea, I can count on my two hands how many times my mother actually cooked for me.

But in response to all of those who comment on how great my mom’s cooking skill must be… I often didn’t have the heart to say, “No. My mom was a crappy cook, nor did she ever want to cook for me until I literally left the country.” That would be an awful thing to say, right? So I used to just smile (no comment), but also sometimes I get sick of just smiling and nodding, so I say “Well, I also spent a lot of time looking over the shoulder of my grandmother and hired help who used to prepare our meals.” Implying it’s not really all my mom, but also not denying my mother’s hypothetical great cooking skills.

Then, as I aged, I realized… What’s the point of me hiding that my mom was a bad cook? Why do I often sugar coat everything about my life, including this? As, being an immigrant with a split cultural personality, and a great number of identities, I spent my entire life sugar coating and masking. So instead, I now tell funny stories of my mother’s cooking skills.

Like the time my mother bought four large bags of mostly squashed strawberries and had the pot with strawberry and just water (no gelatin, mind you) on the stove for almost an entire day, and we spent the next week drinking something akin to strawberry chunk juice. Or the time my mother made 3-layer rice, which had none of the layers that were edible (burnt, uncooked, and smelly).

23 Days of Elementary School

I have two elementary school diplomas. How that came about is not because I have a superpower to split myself into two or travel in time, but because I actually went to two elementary schools. In Korea, the school year begins with the new year, although winter break is long so you don’t start until close to March. But in the U.S. the school year ends in June. So when I immigrated here almost halfway into my 6th grade, it was time for me to finish up the 6th grade in the U.S. I guess that means I went to school earlier?

My 23 days of elementary school was like a dream. Have you ever had a dream where everyone was blurry and you didn’t quite understand what they were saying? Like that scene in Peanuts where whenever an adult is speaking, you don’t have a clue what they’re saying. Then There are punctuated moments of lucidity where you do understand a word spoken here and there.

I was in a regular 6th grade classroom where there were a couple Korean students who spoke bare minimum Korean. During the math portion of the class, I was with the rest of the class since I already knew how to do all the math problems they were learning. But all other times, I was paired with a student who knew some Korean and was given simple pictures and words for me to learn.

The school felt completely chaotic and I moved through it as though I were moving through a foggy cloud. I remember kids being so loud, which was unthinkable where I came from. And there were so many kids who looked so different. I thought about it, though. It was just a dream, right? School providing breakfast and lunch was also crazy. I’m used to lunch boxes from home, but here I had no one to make breakfast or lunch for me. At least my grandmother had given me giant cookie tubs full of five and ten cent coins. So that’s how I paid for my meals.

The first word I learned with certainty in elementary school was Callate. It is a Spanish word. I just got too tired of kids running wild and screaming, I suppose, so I mimicked others who were near me. Then it seems my first, second-language was Spanish?

The First Son

I rarely talk about my father because I don’t have a close relationship with him. He was always more or less a fearful and distant figure in the family. Let’s just say there I can probably count in two hands how many times he’s ever smiled or been nice to me, or anyone else in the family, for that matter. But although I can’t excuse his behavior, I do understand why he is the way he is. 

From a very young age, my father has always had this responsibility on his shoulders. The Korean War happened when he was around nine years old in Korean age, eight in western world. His family obviously fled to the south to escape the war and North Koreans. There was no steady home or employment. Although my grandfather was a skilled carpenter, the family subsisted by selling goods on the market, which meant both his parents worked long and rarely paid attention to home life.

As the oldest child, all the responsibility of taking care of his family was put on him. I don’t agree with this Korean custom, and no matter how many times my grandparents and my father say that was the way things were in those times, I actually know it wasn’t. Not really. None of my father’s friends’ families actually behaved this way. Just my family.

No matter the reason for the grave responsibility, it was my father who had to go wash rice in the cold stream with other mothers, who always complimented him on how well behaved he was. He had two younger brothers and a baby sister, the older one who always followed him to his elementary school. As part of poor public school post war, children received small bread and drink while in school. My father’s brother knew that and would stand outside so he could take my father’s bread. Feeling responsible, my father always gave away his bread, knowing his younger brother wouldn’t even share with his other siblings. My father went hungry regardless.

Let’s say such sacrifice has made none of his younger brothers better men, since they are selfish to this day. But that’s perhaps a story reserved for another day.

Growing up like this, my father had to give up his desire to be a farmer and an artist. He became a pharmacist instead, so he could make money. He was smart, so he attended one of the premier pharmacy schools in Seoul (and yes, it is a big deal to attend a university in Seoul for those living outside Seoul). It probably never occurred to him to question what he wanted. 

The family brainwashing essentially had him work immediately after his graduation. It didn’t matter that he got married and had a family of his own. He spent all his earnings providing for his younger siblings and his parents. And yes, what I was told was… that’s the way it was at that time. Also, false statements.

I still laugh (not a funny one) since my mom, who worked full time to provide for her children (my father’s children obviously) and the household, was the only mom who had actually worked at the time. In those days, in most other households, the father actually provided for the family while the mother took care of the children. But my father’s earnings were reserved for “his family”. He supported both his brothers through university. One didn’t even finish since he could have cared less. He supported his sister through studying abroad. And to this day… even when my father is the one who needs help, they’re not the ones who support him.

But even as I don’t agree or excuse him for his behavior, I do understand why…

I just wish he’d stop saying that “It’s the way things were in those days.”


My childhood memory starts when I was maybe three or four years old. After my maternal grandmother and her daughters moved to the U.S. and stopped living with our family, my paternal grandparents moved in. According to my mother, my grandfather was a kind and gentle man, although he had a bit of a weakness for alcohol. But he was apparently still relatively a gentleman when he was drunk. He apparently loved my mother and through his influence softened his wife’s sharpness toward my mom. 

It’s strange how so many Korean mother-in-laws are nasty to their daughter-in-laws. You’d think they’d swear to be nice to their own daughter-in-laws after experiencing mistreatment from their mother-in-law. But instead of not repeating the mistake, they equally mistreat their own daughter-in-laws. And the cycle continues. Perhaps they are taking revenge for the time they were miserable as a daughter-in-law. Perhaps they don’t know how else to behave, since that’s all they learned.

Thankfully, my paternal grandmother couldn’t treat my mother too badly. My mother was a highly educated woman from a good family and she was also as much of a bread earner as my father was, especially since most of his salary went to supporting his family of origin and my mother’s salary went to pay for supporting our family. Still, my grandmother wasn’t a very kind woman and, at least for the first few years they lived with us, my paternal grandfather was a soft influence on her.

In contrast to what most people would think, my mother was not happy when I got married. I think she was worried about me experiencing so many difficulties she’d faced as a married woman. I can’t count in my two hands how many times my mother packed her bags and grabbed us from school, with the intention of never coming back. Of course, that would never have worked in Korea since women had absolutely no rights then, even a working woman. I sometimes wonder if my mother would have broken the cycle of mother-in-law abuse if one of her children had been born as a man and had gotten married.

Concubine or two

I’ve written about my great grandmother, who was a bit of a child bride. As often it was with arranged marriages, their marriage was… shall I say, the typical marriage of a rich man? Perhaps it’s because the choice was taken away from him, or perhaps he was just a rich man of his time.

My great grandmother did have three children by her husband, including the last child, a boy, who’d died. But my great grandfather was never content with the marriage. I’m told he was rich, tall, handsome, and an incredible singer. Obviously, there would be tons of women following him? And in those days, it was a common practice to have a concubine or two. So that’s what he did. He spent a lot of time with his second wife/concubine and had children with her. Of course, my grandmother knew all about it as she sometimes fetched him home from various concubines’ houses.

Then what happens when there are no sons by the first wife? You adopt the sons of the other wife to be the sons of the first wife. And that’s what happened. Essentially, these sons sort of became the sons of my great grandmother, on paper, of course. And well, that’s where inheritance (if there had been any left after the war) would have gone as well.

And both my grandmother and my mother’s generation all knew of this as they were well acquainted with who my mother called her “uncles”. I suppose in modern times this type of practice would be possibly unthinkable? Boys at any cost? But that was quite common in the olden times. So common that an exorbitant amount of money was spent in bringing back these uncles from the North when the border was nearly closed.

In the end, they were the inheritors of the family legacy, whatever was left of it. Thankfully, they were nice people and exceptionally smart, taking after my great grandfather. I vaguely remember meeting one of them and I always wondered why I had great uncles when my great grandmother didn’t have any sons.

Seaweed Soup

Seaweed soup is a must-have dish. It’s not fancy and easily made so we used to eat it ‌often. All you need is good 미역 (seaweed) and meat broth – and there is plenty of stale seaweed that will make you believe seaweed soup is not good, so beware.

Not sure how much people’s eating habits have changed in Korea these days with westernization, but when I was young, we still had rice, soup and side dishes three meals ago. Obviously, as a child, I often preferred something different. Did I tell you I didn’t even like Gimchee when I was young? That obviously changed now. Now, I crave Gimchee, just not always able to get it.

Although it was a typical dish, the seaweed soup was very important. Usually you must have some on your birthday and after giving birth. Why? Well, the explanation given to me was that it was good for our body, cleanses blood, clears skin, etc. So traditionally when a woman gave birth, it was a must-give. But I suppose not always? That was the case for my maternal grandmother.

She’d given birth to a third daughter, my mother, that is. And her parents-in-law decided to neglect her. Apparently, it was her fault that she didn’t end up having a male child. You probably can’t tell from my writing, but this type of treatment upsets me. And it apparently upset my maternal great grandmother too. Beware of the wrath of mothers! 

So hearing that her daughter was being neglected by her husband’s family – at that time, my grandmother had gone to give birth at her husband’s main family’s house), my great grandmother decided to intervene. She bought expensive seaweed and hired a man on a motorcycle. My grandmother’s husband’s family was extremely well-off and mighty, which meant they had their large main house situated away from the city with large land, and her husband had been studying in the city. On the motorcycle my great grandmother went, and essentially barged into her son-in-law’s house. Then she took charge of the kitchen – trust me, this is not something you do as a woman’s family in those times.

But my grandmother got her seaweed soup, finally after several days.

Snippets in Korean

오늘은 물리치료사한테 가야 해서 하루 휴가를 내기로 했어요. 이상하게 하루 쉬는 것 가지고 인생이 전부 행복해지는 것 같아요.
이럴 때야말로 인생에 대해 다시 곰곰이 생각해 봐야 하는 건가요? 아니면 이것은 그냥 누구에게나 있을 수 있는 지침?
알 수 없는 공허감. 말할 수 없는 그리움.
그렇게 우리는 하루하루를 살아가는군요. 끝까지… 한도 없이… 정처 없이…
사랑이 있으면서도 사랑을 모르고.
아프고 있으면서도 아프지 않은 척.
우정이 무언지 잊어버리고.
마음이 울적할 땐 덮어버리고.
그저 말없이 사라져 버리는…
우리는 모두 홀로서기를 하고 있습니다.

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